According to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?” (Adams D. ‘80)
According to the latest Lonely Planet Myanmar guide, it seems that “Where shall we have lunch?” is not that much of a problem in Yangon, as apparently you can’t walk more than a few hundred yards before stumbling upon somewhere that will serve a feast of flavours, a mountain of noodles and a fair sized portion of oil to see you through the afternoon, all for a few Kyat.
However a more interesting question, and one that perhaps exemplifies this phase of sophistication in the fictional guide, is that of “Where shall we go for dinner?”
Regardless of whether you’ve lived in Yangon for a few years or all of your life you’ll probably agree that the choice of eating out options is becoming greater and more complicated by the day; in fact even if you’ve only been here for a few weeks you’ve possibly already seen half a dozen new restaurants open, and several bars close. With this plethora of new places all pugnaciously competing for customers across the city the guidebooks really don’t stand a chance of keeping up; in fact they are out of date before their roving reporters have drained their glasses and filled out their expenses forms.
So of course the guardians of gastronomy that seem to have been here forever and probably will continue to be, get a fairly steady trade of nervous guidebook wielding visitors each evening; venues such as 50th street, Sharky’s, and Onyx to name but a few. But there is one eating and drinking spot that the guides seem to have taken a shine to in recent years, and consequently more and more visitors to Yangon are heading there.
Now I’m assuming you know all about 19th street, after all it’s hardly a secret. The NY times squeezed it into their 36 hours in Yangon last year, the American chef and author Anthony Boudain ate there in 2013 for his CNN series ‘Parts Unknown’, and Jeremy Clarkson and his pals foolishly drove their lorries up it for a few seconds of ‘comedy’ in their ridiculous BBC Top Gear Burma Special Edition.
And if you are an expat in Yangon then it’s likely you were guided here fairly early on when you first arrived. It will have been one of the places that escorted you through the How, Why and Where phases of your introduction to the food of Myanmar. And of course back in the day it was one of the few spots that you could eat and drink after 9pm. That has all changed now, and with all manner of ubiquitous drinking and eating spots popping up all over the city, and it seems that perhaps because of this increased competition, and perhaps due to the increase of tourists to 19th street it, it has been rumoured to be going out of fashion with those in the know. Pastiche, clichéd; a place to avoid, past its best.
Despite this influx of incomers, and subsequent apparent decline in local popularity of the street by some, you can still get a half decent post-work 800Kyat mojito at Koh San II, before sliding over to Shwe Mingalar for some tasty BBQ, decently priced draught beer and fabulously attentive service. It perhaps for this reason that there are some that are even suggesting that 19th street is set to become the next Khao San Road. However, it isn’t, and there is a reason for that.
The Secret of 19th street is its synergy. Synergy in the way that it is made up not by its location, or its décor or its music, or its grungy urban theme, or the people who frequent it nor the people that do business there. It is collectively made up by a cohesiveness that is greater than the sum of its parts, and unlike the androgynous bars that are appearing and disappearing daily in Yangon. 19th street is exactly what you want it to be, one size fits all; and it never ever fails to provide.
This is the allure and the lure of 19th street, it can’t be labelled; it isn’t simply an expat or Myanmar or tourist haunt. It isn’t just a beer and BBQ street, it is a working living, breathing street in Yangon, it is a street of people, it is a street of smells and textures, of noise and of presence. It is a place to visit and be a part of, not just as an observer. It is a place that is better for your attendance, yet no worse for your absence. It is a place that despite being fluid and transient, being shape shifted into your own image on every visit it is at the same time a place that has always been the same.
This isn’t a review of 19th street; that’s been done to death in blogs and articles and magazines for years, there is nothing new to report here. There is no need for another review of 19th street, because it hasn’t changed; it is still the same as it was the first time you were taken there. In fact if you’ve fallen out of love with 19th street – or if it’s a place you no longer frequent – I would tentatively suggest that it isn’t because 19th street has changed – its because you have.
A version of this article appeared in MY Yangon Magazine – March 2015